Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

The Prison Inspectorate’s report on Birmingham prison was published in late August. It was the worst report the Inspectorate has issued since it began its work in 1981. There had been a ‘dramatic deterioration’ in the regime since the previous inspection 18 months earlier. The prison was in an ‘appalling state’. Against the four tests used to judge the health of individual prisons – safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning – the outcomes for prisoners were ‘poor…our lowest assessment rating’. This was only the second time an institution had received such a low rating and illustrated the ‘seriousness of my [the Chief Inspector’s] concerns.’ The regime’s corrosive toxicity was captured in one damning paragraph:

Communal areas in most wings were filthy. Rubbish had accumulated and had not been removed. There were widespread problems with insects, including cockroaches, as well as rats and other vermin. We saw evidence of bodily fluids left unattended, including blood and vomit. I saw a shower area where there was bloodstained clothing and a pool of blood that apparently had been there for two days next to numerous rat droppings. Many cells were cramped, poorly equipped and had damaged flooring or plasterwork. Most toilets were poorly screened, many were leaking and we saw cells with exposed electrics.

Three prisoners had killed themselves since the previous inspection and while the investigations were ‘not complete, early indications suggested significant concern about standards of care in the prison’. Prisoners in danger of self-harm ‘did not feel well cared for’. The conditions, lack of support, lack of purposeful activity and inconsistency added to the risks they faced:

Recorded levels of self-harm were lower than the last inspection and lower than in similar prisons, although we observed, and Listeners told us, that some incidents of self-harm were not recorded. Analysis of self-harm incidents at the monthly safer custody meeting was not good enough to identify patterns and trends which would inform action. The management of ACCT (case management of prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm) procedures was poor in most cases. In many, care maps had not been completed and where they had, issues identified in assessments had not been included. Recorded contact was not sufficiently interactive and was often not complying with planned intervals…The action plan in response to PPO investigations [around self-inflicted deaths] was incomplete and not kept under review so some actions were not sustained. Investigations of serious incidents of self-harm were not sufficiently detailed and did not identify lessons learned. In our survey only 31% of prisoners said it was easy to speak with a Listener when they wanted to, which was significantly worse than similar prisons and Listeners told us that prisoners were often refused access to them (emphasis added).

The brittle structures supposedly in place to ensure a modicum of democratic accountability, and to protect prisoners, were contemptuously ignored allowing an institutionalised culture of immunity and impunity to prevail. Of the 70 recommendations made after the previous inspection, only 14 were achieved. None of the four main recommendations made was achieved.

Birmingham was not unique. Time and again, year after year, the state’s often-abject failure to learn lessons from incidents of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths has been forensically detailed by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), by coroners and by the charity INQUEST. Scandalously, in 2016/17 ‘around a third of prisons inspected…were not implementing or reinforcing PPO recommendations well enough, and they had all experienced self-inflicted deaths since previous inspections’.

Predatory hyper-masculinity dominated the daily regime. It legitimated and facilitated violence, bullying and intimidation; a relentless power structure that operated, without pity, within and between the cultures of staff and prisoners. The harrowing description of the humiliating treatment of a ‘clearly troubled man who was struggling to maintain personal hygiene’ provided chilling evidence of the debasing impact of this hyper-masculinity:

An offensive poster carrying the message ‘Say No to BO’ was stuck on his door, along with offensive comments on his cell card. We were told that on at least two occasions other prisoners put a nearby fire hose through his observation panel and ‘hosed him down’, soaking him and his cell. It took repeated interventions by the inspection team to have him moved to a place where his needs could be met. We struggle to understand how staff could have allowed this appalling bullying to take place (emphasis added).

In fact, it is not difficult to understand. The dominant discourses of bullying and intimidation favoured in official reports, and in the media, individualise what are systemic psychic and structural processes of masculinity which position prisoners and staff on the same merciless terrain of domination and subjugation. It is a power structure which flourishes not only in Birmingham but in nearly every male prison, is not contested and has devastating consequences, inside and outside of the prison walls.

Conditions were so bad that the Chief Inspector invoked the Urgent Notification protocol. This committed the Secretary of State for Justice to publicly respond to the report within 28 calendar days outlining how the regime would be improved in the short and long term.  He concluded with a damning assessment:

I was astounded that HMP Birmingham had been allowed to deteriorate so dramatically over the 18 months since the previous inspection. A factor in my decision to invoke the Urgent Notification process is that at present I can have no confidence in the ability of the prison to make improvements. There has clearly been an abject failure of contract management and delivery.

The Media Response

The media response to the report was predictable: a flurry of sanctimonious comments; lazy and sensationalist cherry picking; proposals for some limited action; and an overreliance on the views of prison officers who had a vested interest in defending the benevolent image of the prison’s staff. Then the story disappeared leaving prisoners to fester in fetid, blistering conditions.

This was particularly evident around the issue of safety. Despite the number of prisoners self-harming and killing themselves, safety became a question of prison officer safety. Endless media time, driven by the Prison Officers Association, was devoted to the assaults it was said staff endured. Prisoner safety was relegated and marginalised. The nadir was reached on Channel 4 News, a supposedly liberal broadcaster, the evening the report was published. Answering the presenter’s extraordinarily leading question ‘Do you feel safe, do your colleagues feel safe?’ a serving prison officer replied that ex-military personnel working in British prisons said they felt safer in Afghanistan and Iraq. Repeating the POA’s line that the prison should have been left in the public sector, thereby implying that the pre-privatised prison, contrary to all of the historical evidence, was a well-functioning, benevolent place, critical discussion about the report, the wider prison crisis and the role of the authoritarian staff culture in brutalising prisoners was closed down, a strategy ably helped by the abject nature of the questioning.

The BBC’s coverage was no better. The POA line, effectively unchallenged, dominated their radio and TV broadcasts which were built around a series of well-aired themes: the erosion of prison officer authority; the negative impact of theorists, academics, liberals and ‘bean counters’ on how the prison was run; the invisibility of management; the lack of staff control; drug taking; staff safety; the cuts to staff numbers; the loss of experienced staff; and, inevitably, the need to take the prison back under government control. Another low point was reached on BBC Radio 4 in its 2.00pm news broadcast on the day the report was published. The only voice heard was that of a prison officer. Similar themes were discussed on BBC 2’s Newsnight that night. In taking the line that it did, the media’s coverage moved the debate about the prison onto the safe terrain of staff cuts and drugs. Not for the first time, it left the real driving forces behind the crisis in Birmingham, and what should be done about it, unexplored and neglected.

The Labour Party’s Opportunism

The day following the report’s publication, the Guardian published an opinion piece pointedly titled ‘The government knew about horrific conditions at Birmingham prison but didn’t care’. Written by Lord Falconer, the former Labour Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, he outlined a predictable range of issues which, he argued, contributed to the crisis in the jail: ‘the courts sending many more violent prisoners to custody than previously; the pervasive effect of spice and other drugs in prison; and the deterioration of prisoner/prison officer ratios in private and public prisons alike’.

There were a number of problems with this piece. First, it ignored the failure of successive Labour governments to respond to the degrading treatment of prisoners. In March 2001, the Guardian reported on the prison’s filthy, appalling conditions and highlighted the plight of one prisoner with mental health needs who, for weeks, was denied a change of clothes. If Labour ministers knew, this was shameful. If they did not know then, scandalously, they failed in their duty of care towards him. Why did Labour respond in this way? Because they were in thrall to the asinine slogan of ‘tough on [working class] crime, tough on the causes of [working class] crime’.

Second, like the POA, Falconer focussed on the cuts to staff numbers, especially the cuts to experienced staff. However, the cuts did not cause the regime to become what it was; they intensified the formal and informal processes of punishment, degradation and humiliation which have long been part of Birmingham’s culture. He failed to consider the dire state of the prison under Labour when staff numbers, experienced and otherwise, were stable and failed to explain how an increase in these numbers would defuse the situation especially when a well-staffed prison like Liverpool was the worst prison ever inspected by the Inspectorate until they went to Birmingham.

Third, Falconer, and other Labour spokespersons, opportunistically focussed on the fact that the prison had been privatised. The politics and morality of privatising prisons is clearly an issue. In Birmingham, G4S investors required a profit margin of 20% which meant that the prison’s running costs had to fall by 40% when the company assumed responsibility for the institution (Private Eye, 2018). However, he failed to mention the Labour Party’s unprincipled U-turn on privatising prisons. In opposition they were against it. From 1997, in office, they supported it.

Finally, he failed to consider the prison’s fearsome reputation amongst prisoners which was established as far back as 1853 when they experienced routine abuse, gross neglect and starvation when they were denied food if they failed to fulfil set tasks. In 1975, under Labour, the Birmingham Six, despite being innocent, ‘ran the gauntlet of a lynch mob of prison officers; by the end the teeth of two of the men and the blood of all covered the reception area; the evidence essential to establish in the future that the “confessions” in police custody had been beaten out of them had been obliterated’. In 1980, under the Conservatives, an inquest jury found that Barry Prosser had been unlawfully killed. He was on remand for allegedly causing damage to a door handle worth £1.62. His injuries included a burst stomach and oesophagus. After a series of legal twists and turns, three prison officers were found not guilty of his murder. In February 2010, 13 years into a Labour government, the Inspectorate pointed to the failure to implement recommendations made in a previous inspection. Out of the 146 made, only 50 were achieved, while 96 were either partially achieved (36) or not achieved at all (60)

Facing the Future

Birmingham treated the prisoners with ‘malign neglect’. It was a site of purgatorial punishment where misery, terror, trauma, humiliation, degradation and institutionalised indifference were normalised. Breaking the prisoners was not based on unconscious acts carried out by irrational, individual ‘bad apples’ working inside the state. It was based on rational thought processes, and systematic actions, embedded in the formal and informal occupational culture of the staff and prison service managers. What happened in the prison was a state crime, involving acts of omission and commission.

It was not a prison filled with dangerous psychopaths but was a local prison through which 500 new prisoners passed each month who, on average, served six weeks in the institution. Despite some honourable exceptions, it was a prison without pity housing a population who had a range of vulnerabilities which made them all potentially susceptible to self-harm and self-inflicted death. The clear message from the report was that, as holistic, human beings, their lives mattered less than the lives of the allegedly law-abiding majority on the outside or the demands of a dividend-obsessed company where the warped sanctification of profit trumped the provision of decent conditions and the sanctity of life itself.  And yet, nearly a month after the Chief Inspector reported, the Chair of the Justice Committee wrote to the Prisons Minister indicating that members remained ‘deeply concerned about the conditions in which some prisoners are living. It is especially worrying that it falls again to the Chief Inspector to shine a light on ongoing problems which should have been raised and resolved through normal reporting and oversight mechanisms long before his visit’.

Given the abject state of the institution, and other male prisons such as Liverpool, Exeter and Nottingham, as well as the obscene levels of self-harm in women’s prisons, it is too glib to call for resignations, however symbolic, which was the line taken by the Prison Officers Association. Resignations will do nothing to solve the crisis, make the system accountable or protect prisoners. Instead, they individualise the problem, leave the structures of unaccountable power untouched and, in this case, distract attention away from an authoritarian staff culture which degrades not only prisoners but those staff, pejoratively labelled as ‘care bears’, trying to do a decent job in extraordinarily indecent circumstances. The resignation of Amber Rudd, over the Windrush scandal, demanded by a politically opportunistic Labour front bench, is a telling example of how individual resignations can have little or no effect or indeed the opposite effect intended.

The crisis in Birmingham, and other prisons, will only be resolved by radically transforming prisons and the wider criminal justice system: fundamentally reappraising and changing the ineffectual, hard-line sentencing policies operating in the courts; drastically reducing the prison population; ending the prison building programme; challenging the state’s narrow and hypocritical definition of crime through developing social policies around safety which offer protection from the depredations of the powerful and the social harms they generate; and embedding structures of democratic accountability thereby removing the outrageous culture of immunity and impunity operating within prisons, and the state more generally.

Unless these changes are implemented, Birmingham will not be the last prison scandal. The difference next time might just be the scale of the response from prisoners. The furious demonstration at the prison in 2016 could be the prelude to something more profound if the government follows the same jagged path that has brought us to this lamentable point. Politicians and state servants cannot say they have not been warned about the potentially devastating consequences of their shocking complacency and indifference towards a regime which psychologically and physically pulverised the human beings supposedly in its care.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson and Katie Tucker for their support with this blog.



Private Eye (2018) Profits of Doom. September, 147724/8-6-09-2018


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